Semicolon: understanding the uniqueness

The semicolon (;) is a unique punctuation mark, but while some consider it the most feared punctuation mark on earth, it is not unfathomable. Problems might arise from confusing this mark with the colon or other punctuations if we do not understand how it is used; however, this post will simplify it.

Specifically, a semicolon acts as a stronger comma but a weaker full stop. It connects two or more parts that relate to or contrast with one another. While a colon explains or expands a previous expression, a semicolon connects related clauses that could ordinarily stand alone but a writer intends to bring together.

What are the uses of the semicolon? Let’s consider them thus:

  • Linking independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction

We use the semicolon to link independent clauses when we don’t use coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, yet and so). These clauses can stand alone but because they are related, we link them.
Examples:

  1. Ibadan is the largest city in West Africa; the population grows ever day.
  2. Ibadan is the largest city in West Africa, and the population grows every day.
  3. Ibadan is the largest city in West Africa. The population grows every day.

Each of the above is possible, but a writer might choose ‘1’ to show the connection between the two independent clauses. This is because size and population portrayed in the clauses are related, both referring to ‘Ibadan’.

4. Tope is gentle and shy; Martinez is outspoken and outgoing.

Tope and Martinez are two contrasting individuals, so we use a semicolon to show that one is a perfect opposite of the other.

Note: We do not capitalise the word following a semicolon, unless it’s a proper noun.

 

  • Linking different entities with existing commas

We use semicolons when we have a list with internal commas.

Examples:

  1. In attendance were the Chairman, Chief Rauf Obama; the Secretary, Mrs Ajoke Clinton; the Public Relations Officer, Honourable Uche Trump; and the Treasurer, Senator Obong Bush.

Individuals and their positions are separated internally by the comma. The comma indicates ‘same as’, while the semicolon indicates ‘another’. Note the last semicolon before ‘and’: it is important because the last individual should be distinct just like others.

2. We will visit Abuja, Nigeria; Nairobi, Kenya; New Delhi, India; Washington, US; Bucharest, Romania; and                    Beijing, China.

The places within each semicolon are country capital and country name.

 

  • Indicating ellipsis

The semicolon can also replace ellipsis to avoid repeating what is already known.

Examples:

  1. Some of them were soldiers; some, police officers; and the rest, civilians.
  2.  If we intend to fight them, they’d be more aggressive; we become their friends, they’d like us.

 

  • Linking independent clauses joined by a transitional expression

A transitional expression is a word or phrase that links the meaning of a sentence to another (e.g. moreover, for example, in addition, also, furthermore, consequently, thus).

Examples:

  1. The civilian president had no knowledge of the plot; consequently, it was easy for the coup plotters to succeed.
  2. What we think is not important at present; however, it will matter in a couple of days.

 

  • Linking clauses that have a connector

This is a rare use of the semicolon. The semicolon is used to separate independent clauses which are already linked by a connector (and, but, or, for, etc.) when the first clause has one or more commas already.

Examples:

  1. When things get better, and they eventually will, you should remember today; and that’s something to remember for the rest of your life.
  2. I can’t be a politician because I hate losing, and I hate publicity; but I could be a marketer because my loss is mine alone to bear.

 

In general, the semicolon is a unifying punctuation mark, but do not overuse it. If you understand the above principles, you’ll be a better writer; if you’re still confused about any of them, read again.

Read also: Colon: often misused, now explained

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